Lucian Freud: Realness That Transcends Realism
“Lucian Freud: recent paintings and etchings” and “Inside Job: Lucian Freud in the Studio, Photography by David Dawson” through May 27
Acquavella Contemporary Art, Inc., 18 E 79 Street, between Madison and Fifth Avenues, 212 734 6300
The genius of Lucian Freud has nothing to do with technique and everything to do with energy. However much he looks to the Old Masters (and increasingly in his senior years, like one), he is quintessentially a mid-20th-century existentialist: a man striving against the odds for personal authenticity. His mentor and rival Francis Bacon coined a phrase that seems appropriate: “exhilarated despair.” Doubt is as much his raw material as paint.
Mr. Freud has a large public – when his new paintings and etchings were shown at the Wallace Collection in London last month, 50,000 people visited – and many will ask, isn’t it the sheer, mesmerizing laying on of paint, the magical mortgage of touch to vision, that keeps the eye lingering for so long upon what are, in many respects, repellant pictures?
For his work can certainly seem repellant, both in subject matter and surface, with unhappy-looking, ungainly nudes rendered in murky colors and blotchy accumulations of paint. The material facts of the paint will indeed detain the viewer, but reconciling what has been put down to the total design is more likely to confound than satisfy. . A finished work is more an accomodation of doubts than their resolution.
Those works are now on display at Mr. Freud’s New York dealer, Acquavella. The exhibition is his first since the 2002 retrospective, and for an artist of 81 who works at his agonizing pace, the output of almost two-dozen pieces in the intervening period is astounding. For it is well-known that his paintings take forever to make.
The artist has admitted that his sitters’ weariness gives him energy. Like the analysis offered by disciples of his grandfather, Sigmund Freud, the fiercely penetrating and revelatory observations of Lucian Freud take hundreds of sittings and do not come cheap. “The Brigadier,” (2003-04), a well-over life size portrait of Andrew Parker-Bowles (former husband of [either make this “Royal favorite” which I prefer, as its respectful and amusingly understated, or say “the Prince of Wales’ companion”] Prince of Wales favorite Camilla and an old riding friend of Mr. Freud’s), took more than a year to complete.
At first “The Brigadier,” in which the sitter wears his dress uniform and medals, seems to belong to the tradition of the swagger portrait, of the dashing military types and dandies depicted by masters from van Dyck to Sargent. But in key respects it is different. There is a psychological charge, a sense of a man familiar with life’s vicissitudes, that sets the painting in a nobler tradition of portraiturethat of Rembrandt and Goya.
Despite the impression of bravura in its initial impact, a closer reading of this (or any) Freud, frustrates the first sensation of fluency or speed. It has the grinding, compacted energy of a steamroller. The registration of effort and commitment on the part of painter and sitter alike lends the work extra charge.
But what are we to make of the individual brushstrokes, the bewildering spread of local decisions that make up the whole? This is where the idea of energy versus technique comes into play. I’m not for a moment denying, or refusing to marvel at, the extraordinary facture of a Freud painting. It is, rather, a question of identifying the divorce between micro-effort and macro-result.
A Freud is, in its way, as bizarrely crafted as the breathtaking little devotional mosaics to be seen in the Byzantium exhibition at the nearby Met. In Mr. Freud’s case, the tesserae consist of what Cézanne called “petits sensations,” individually apprehended details that are captured in isolated brushstrokes or intuited in juxtapositions of color and plane. But Mr. Freud’s little sensations are joined up, so to speak. He is more like an Old Master than a modern in that – in contrast to the deconstructivist effect of Cézanne’s Cubist disciples, –he constructs a compelling whole, a cogent window onto the world.
Mr. Freud’s power and appeal comes from his art being joined to the great Western tradition of depiction, of offering a singular, convincing vision of the actual. For all the local painterly discoveries, he finds the strong, linear boundary of his figures and forms and accentuates them. But he is no academic, opting for a clichéd set of ready-made solutions like single-point perspective or anatomical correctness.
Perspective seems to be made up as he goes along. “David and Eli,” (2003-04) resorts to almost mannerist contortions of foreshortening to depict the sprawling male nude and his pet whippet, head lolling over the edge of the mattress. (Otherwise, the human sitter’s protruding right leg would absurdly dominate the field of vision.) “Irishwoman on a Bed,” (2003-04) is the oddest picture in the show: cherries defy gravity to caress the sitter’s mottled, gray legs; the hands and feet are grotesquely outsized. But the incredible details make the whole the more compelling. In Mr. Freud’s aesthetic, the solid truth of full, human presence must win out over the illusory truth of optical expectation.
Mr. Freud’s art is animated to its core by a tension between the visual and the tactile. In his early work, intensity was entirely sealed within the image. The surfaces were pearly smooth, like a Bronzino or an Ingres. One critic even dubbed him “the Ingres of Existentialism.” As Mr. Freud told Robert Hughes in 1987, “I hoped that, if I concentrated enough, the intensity of scrutiny alone would force life into the pictures.” But his art reached an impasse with all this smoothness and closure: the ethereal, aloof quality deprived it of the energy he was after. He found liberation in a switch from sable brushes to the much more painterly and open possibilities of hog’s hair. The surfaces of his canvases became, like the subjects depicted, visceral and contingent.
And yet, for all his little sensations, Mr. Freud is no sensualist. His impasto has nothing to do with the actual feeling of skin: Even the victim of an advanced dermatological condition wouldn’t have such blotchiness. Instead, the build up is of pentimenti, the result of layer upon layer of correction. What comes across is not the sensation of the sitter’s flesh but of the artist’s manic attempts to depict it. If a Freud conveys actual living presence, it is because of the oddity, distortion, and awkwardness of his means, not despite them.
Mr. Freud attains a level of realness that transcends Realism – which is, after all, only a style. When you look at the cramped, tired, alternately sagging and tense flesh and bones of a Freud figure, your own body comes out in sympathy: You begin to itch, to fidget, to sense your own physicality.
It is something of a cliché that naked equals true, but there can be no denying that Mr. Freud penetrates psychological depths in his depictions of the nude. They are plenty prurient enough in their improbable postures, but he does not eroticize his subjects. Flesh is empowered to convey personality with the force, almost, of a face. In this respect, a Freud nude is the conceptual opposite of Magritte’s “Rape” (1945), which rendered a woman’s face as a torso, with breast for eyes and so on. At the same time, the face of a Freud nude resigns itself to a deanimated anatomical state of muscle and skin hanging from a skull. The head is just another limb, not the privileged seat of reason.
If Mr. Freud can recall the animal in a person, he can also bring out the “humanity” of animals: His new show is a menagerie, almost a zoo. In addition to his own, late beloved whippet, Pluto, whose garden grave is the subject of a touching nature study, and his studio assistant David Dawson’s whippet, Eli, there is a masterful “portrait” of a gray gelding, and the rear of another horse in “Skewbald Mare” (2004), both uncharacteristic in the fluency and spontaneity of their brushstrokes. It is rare to see a modern painter of animals unconcerned with their symbolism and marveling instead in their sheer physical presence.
In his rapport with dogs and horses, Mr. Freud, a Berlin-born Jew, demonstrates an identification with the upper echelon of English society. But his depiction of animals also ties him to a specifically English tradition of naturalist painters like Stubbs and Constable. (Despite his ancestry and accent, Mr. Freud is, in temperament and taste, a very English artist.) Questioned once about the erotic potential of his subject matter, he responded that “the paintings that really excite me have an erotic element irrespective of subject matter – Constable, for example.” Mr. Freud, who helped select an exhibition of Constable organized by the Louvre last year, has an etching “After Constable’s Elm” in the exhibition. Serendipitously, Salander-O’Reilly, the gallery next door to Acquavella, will show Constable cloud studies later this month.
The show at Acquavella is complemented by a display of photographs, taken by Mr. Dawson, of Mr. Freud. These frank, animated studies of the artist at work on various pictures in this show and at play – dining, for instance, with artist pals David Hockney and Frank Auerbach – debunk some of the myths about the squalor of the artist’s bohemian lifestyle. There is a fun moment when Mr. Freud leads the pony to have a look at her portrait in progress, which recalls Mark Tansey’s send-up of naturalism in which academic painters bring a cow into a gallery to admire a landscape.
This rather theatrical gesture on the part of the painter raises a question about intentionality. As his paint gets more succulent and his design hots up, the awkwardness and oddity if anything seem to increase. It is fair to ask: Is his awkwardness a side-effect of a lust for inclusiveness and truth, or a device, an expressive means of adding edge?
As if to preempt the question, in paint, Mr. Freud offers a six inch wide canvas of four eggs on a humble plate. A group portrait of sorts, this study could hang comfortably with any still life in art history. It is an exquisite homily on the origins of life and art.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, April 29, 2004